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September 17, 2012
Listen to any interview with Alabama coach Nick Saban and you'll hear him talk about the process he has obsessed over everywhere he has gone as a coach. Saban's process is how he has installed order at places like Michigan State and LSU and Alabama.
A Saban protege Will Muschamp won't use the exact words Saban does, but the mentality is the same. Since arriving at Florida, he has talked about building a program instead of looking for a quick fix. He has talked about building an aggressive team that wins with character on the field and stays out of trouble off of it. He called it "The Florida Way" to be exact.
One year ago, it wasn't clear how this would happen. The Gators were stumbling through a 7-6 season with personnel that didn't fit the kind of team Muschamp wanted, a quarterback situation muddled by an injured senior and an offensive coordinator who would end up taking the first big chance he got to leave town.
A "quick fix" might have seemed necessary, but Muschamp stood his ground, took his lumps without much public complaint and then eventually publicly tore into his team at the end of the regular season, calling it "soft" and "not physically or mentally tough."
It was certainly a calculated blow to his players. Muschamp knew the reaction he wanted when he said it. Starting with the lead-up to January's Gator Bowl, Muschamp said he began to see the kind of attitude and physicality he wanted. Defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd said it took until December for the majority of the team to buy into Muschamp's system.
Problems lingered over from Urban Meyer's time at Florida, and it had been Muschamp's job to clean out problem players and establish an identity for a team that had been lost since the departure of Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
Janoris Jenkins, Florida's best defensive back, was dismissed from the team. Muschamp watched 14 other players transfer. But the departures seemed obvious and this past summer, the UF football newswire was eerily quiet. Not a single Gator was arrested during a time that was once commonplace for misdemeanor offenses.
In fact, no Gator has been arrested since tight end A.C. Leonard in February. It's no coincidence Muschamp decided it would be best if Leonard and Florida parted ways in July.
Though the arrest record under Meyer's regime was a cause for concern and certainly an embarrassment, for the most part fans care most about what happens on the field.
That's where this past weekend comes into play.
Traveling to Knoxville to play No. 23 Tennessee, Florida was 0 for its last 9 in games against top-25 opponents, which is to say the Gators had not won a game against a top-25 team since Tebow's last collegiate game.
Behind promising young quarterback Jeff Driskel, a new and more focused offensive coordinator in Brent Pease, workhorse senior running back Mike Gillislee and Muschamp's guidance, the Gators ended the ugly top-25 slump. For the second time in as many weeks, they came from behind to win a road game in a hostile environment on the wings of a stifling defense and an opportunistic offense.
"Night and day," Muschamp said when asked to compare this year's team to last year's rendition. "We weren't tough enough. We went back in the off-season program and really made it difficult. ? I know what it takes to win in this league."
The new Gators play loose, and Muschamp certainly isn't one to ask players to tone down trash talk or swagger. But it's also a team that emphasizes discipline and consistency.
Look no further than junior Andre Debose for an example. The former five-star prospect has rarely seen the field through three games. He saw his most action against Tennessee, but still remains limited because his practice play has never been consistent and his work ethic has been questioned. This on a team that most would agree could use all the playmakers it can get.
"Why could he have been involved a little bit more?" Pease asked after the Texas A&M game. "I mean, he was in there at wide receiver. He had two great run blocks down field that made some big plays. When he was in there, he did a great job."
Compare that to the stories that used to come out of Florida when Meyer was at the helm and rumors flew about certain players getting preferential treatment because of talent, and it becomes clear how this regime is different.
The Gators are showing real progress early this season, and all of Muschamp's foundation building is finally showing up on Saturdays. It may have required a step back, but Florida is feeling good about itself these days and looks to be on path to restoring prominence in Gainesville.